You're finished - Labour gives Blair the word

Tony Blair's Labour colleagues are preparing to tell him next week he must step down as Britain's Prime Minister.

Top Labour politicians believe the party cannot win another election with Blair at the helm.

But he is giving no sign that he will bow to the pressure.

The Independent on Sunday reported that Blair would be served notice to quit at a meeting of the Cabinet next week, when senior ministers planned to confront him over his refusal to commit to a departure timetable. The claim was also reported in the Sunday Mirror.

One MP described Blair as "deluded", and another said he was being "self-indulgent".

The newspaper said they were among a growing number of Cabinet ministers, some once loyal to Mr Blair, who had concluded he must leave office soon if Labour was to have any chance of a fourth term.

But the Prime Minister refused to discuss the issue yesterday.

Asked how long he intended to stay in office, Blair grinned, opened his arms wide and said seemingly in reproach, "Here was I just ..." before continuing a visit to a Scottish school.

His silence on the issue followed a newspaper interview in which he urged colleagues to stop "obsessing" about the timing of a leadership change.

Sky News reported that a growing number of MPs believed the lack of clarity was damaging their electoral prospects and that Blair angered some of them further by suggesting he could still be Prime Minister in May.

"This pantomime has to end or we are going to lose the next election," the Independent on Sunday reported one MP as saying.

Another brutally dismissed the Prime Minister's attempt to "spray around policy initiatives" before the party's conference in Manchester.

"Tony is deluding himself if he thinks anyone is listening to all this stuff."

Senior ministers were speaking of "near-panic" among MPs in marginal seats as Labour's poll ratings plunge because of the in-fighting.

One said Blair was being "self-indulgent" in seeking to commit his successor to ever-more radical reforms of the public services .

A group of senior ministers was determined at a meeting of a "political Cabinet" next week to tell the Prime Minister that he must give a clear timetable at the party conference.

It will be the first time Mr Blair has met all his most senior colleagues since his handling of the Lebanon conflict, which led to near-mutiny.

His diminishing political authority was exposed when ministers such as Jack Straw and Douglas Alexander made clear their opposition to his hard-line stance.

Now he faces a full-scale revolt after outraging MPs by suggesting that most of those who want him to go also wanted a return to the beliefs and practices of "Old Labour".

Blair's allies tried to cool tempers yesterday by suggesting he would announce his departure before the Scottish, Welsh and English local authority elections in May.

But senior Labour MPs say they need commitment to a timetable at the party's conference or they will begin collecting support for a public call on Blair to quit.

- INDEPENDENT, AGENCIES

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